The future of hotels & hospitality may not be what you think

I used to think the future was silver space suits. But now I think it looks more like a library in Seoul.”

David Sax

Whether you are a hotelier trying to understand what the future of hospitality could look like to plan your career, a hotel brand leader trying to develop a fresh offering, or a developer looking to build something that will resonate for decades, we all come back to one question: 

What is the future of hotels and hospitality? 

Predictions always get attention, clicks, and likes – especially at the beginning of each year.

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I’m not going to do that here. 

I’m going to make the case that the future of hospitality is probably going to be more different than you expect, but not as you think.

A backlash against futurism

I’m seeing this from many of those closest to the hospitality industry, like this from Jeff Low:

We are intrigued with what the future might hold, but frustrated when “the future” lets us down.

The future is already here

“The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed,” the saying goes.

But I’d suggest the future is more evenly distributed than we may think – and that you see this when you look back at how “the future” has been talked about in the past.

Andy Crouch has a great way of describing this in The Life We’re Looking For

“Imagine describing our way of life to my great-great-grandmother, who lived all of her life in the 19th century. I would explain to her that a robot, made by the American firm Roomba, does most of the vacuuming in my house. Not only that, another robot made by the German firm Bosch, washes the dishes in my home. Using the automatic cybernetic systems that are the hallmark of robotics, it automatically judges the dirtiness of dishes and the right number of wash and rinse cycles – doing a much better job than the average teenager. Of course, we don’t call the device a dishwashing ‘robot’ – we simply called a dishwasher. But if you describe this to my great-great-grandmother, she would have been awestruck. What kind of humans would have such power at their disposal? Surely I would be living a life of untold leisure. It would be so deflating to tell my ancestor the obvious truth: robots have arrived and I am no more fulfilled.“

“What if the future of technology is the same as the past – the same journey into the superpower zone that began with the dawn of devices 100 years ago, which begins with initial excitement, ends in a terminal state of boredom or at least indifference, and along the way, delivers a healthy dose of unintended consequences.”

What if the future of technology is the same as the past – which begins with excitement and ends in a terminal state of indifference?

Andy Crouch

“Robots, it turns out, are amazing – but only before they arrive. The danger is not what our devices will become – it’s what we will do when they fail to deliver on their promise.”

We don’t need to go back 100 years to see the futurism hype-letdown cycle that keeps repeating itself as we revert to the mean of how we want to engage with each other and the world around us. 

The past few years have been a vivid example of this as we’ve exchanged Pelotons for gyms, virtual conferences for in-person events, and our screens for real-life travel experiences as quickly as we could. 

We are bodies first 

“Humans have bodies, and we often forget this,” David Sax, author of The Future is Analog, told me.

This sounds stupidly simple but has profound implications for how we think about and prepare for the future.

We need to rest

The promise of hospitality at its most basic level is rest for the weary. 

If we think about ourselves as embodied humans, the need to rest comes first. That’s true regardless if you’re serving a guest traveling on business or leisure, and if your hotel is in the country or city center.

This is why I’m fascinated by stories of people like Ken Barber, a former technology executive who felt a deep need to disconnect and rest – which led him to create Wildhaven:

The future of hospitality will first and foremost be about helping people rest better.

We need to restore and rejuvenate

We talk endlessly about “experiences” in hospitality, and it comes from our fundamental need for restoration. We come alive when we step out of the ordinary and experience new things.

Samantha Hardcastle tells the story of experiencing a pasta cooking class that stayed with her long after her trip was done:

“What will thrive in the future is unique experiences, high touch that AI can’t give us,” says Rob Paterson, Advisor and Board Member at Storied Collection (and former CEO of Best Western UK).

“It used to be that you could go to a hotel and it was an experience, it was something that you couldn’t get at home. Now, the whole experience for 90% of hotels is pretty bland and boring. There’s a huge opportunity to automate administrative work, and put the time, energy, and creativity you saved towards service because AI is never going to overtake human touch and human service.”

We are sensory beings and one of the biggest dangers of technology is dulling our senses. Travel and hospitality has an increasingly important opportunity to reverse this and help people restore and rejuvenate.

Empathy is behind the best hospitality

Those who use empathy to design and deliver hospitality experiences will be the ones that win, regardless of what technology can or cannot do now or in the future.

“The first ingredient in hospitality is empathy, and empathy is a person-to-person interaction. It can happen on the phone and it can happen through digital communication, but it happens at its fullest and in its highest resolution when people are in the same space,” David says.

“The best hotels know how to use empathy to welcome you. They anticipate what you’ll be feeling when you arrive. You may be coming off of a long flight, you may have had delays, and there might have been bad weather. Maybe you’re traveling for work or with your family and young children. You’re going to be stressed, you’re going to be tired. They know it’s their job to get you checked in and let you know the room might not be ready until 4 pm, but they’ll anticipate how to do this in a way that makes you feel welcomed and respected. That’s the core of hospitality.” 

Empathy anticipates and designs experiences full of rest and surprise and delight. 

Focus on what will not change

This was a guiding principle for Jeff Bezos when he was building Amazon:

I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’
That second question is more important, because when you have something that you know is true over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

Jeff Bezos

I’m writing this on a beach with the sand between my toes and the sun on my face. I just had a good chat with the person at the resort I’m staying at who came by our chairs with drinks. There’s no way technology can ever replicate this feeling.

Technology has powerful applications behind the scenes in hotel operations, but I’m more than ever aware of its limitations for engaging with guests and providing hospitality in the fullest sense of the word.

The future of hospitality is more human. 

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